I was born into an extended Hindu family. Several generations lived together; some members were 80 years old and some just a few days old. Birth, growth and death were recurring and natural events. So were the celebrations of festivals, birth ceremonies and extended rituals during and after the death, and trips together to temples or pilgrimage places. Everyone accepted and shared these inevitable events. Days, months and seasons passed through good times and bad. Over time, changes in lifestyles , changes or breaks in the social, economic, and cultural structure within the household became a living part of each of us.
With the evolution, the character, form, and style of the house in which we lived was also transformed. It grew organically, from just a few rooms to many and from one floor to several. Modified functions and revised movements appeared strange, and at times new, yet they were accepted and absorbed naturally. The expanding structure of the house and its evolving functions were like a big sponge - porous and forever absorbing, constantly providing us with new spatial and aesthetic surprises. However, the focal points - the kitchen, the dining room, and the prayer room, maintained their positions, dominating the overall ambiance and remaining the foundation for the shifting plan and functions. Such continuous evolutions and transformation have become part and parcel of my perceptions of life as well as my aesthetic experience.
I often went with others to nearby villages and temples to attend various ceremonies. Even though the rituals appeared to be similar, their purpose, manner of performance, scale, and location differed. They took place in diverse places: on a river bank, in the open court of a house, or within the precinct of a shrine. These scattered events, set in both modest and profusely decorated settings, did not seem odd, but rather gave one a chance to learn more about uncertainty and constant flux.
The rituals emphasised the sacredness of each event instantly and deepened the understanding of our relationship to the cosmos. With this tenuous connections of the unknown, the newly acquired sanctity of a normal space and the shifting of local time to cosmic time, the externality was dematerialized. Everything became part of the ritual with the chanting and soon the invisible but omnipresent Gods arrived. They participated and after the chanting of the final aarti, they blessed each individual present and departed. Though these rituals lasted between 15 minutes to more than eight hours, we did not realize the passage of time, space or the individual. Psyche, emotions and faith combined to make each event and experience mythical.
I now sense the how and why of this continuing acceptance of life. It is actually the experience of constant sharing. Sharing multiplied the effects of joyous events and diminished those of sad ones. It added new dimensions to our understanding of life as a constantly turning wheel or a broken circle, whether we performed the planned or the unexpected religious or social ceremonies. Living together helped us understand the uncertainties in life, the successes and failures. These increased our tolerance and changed the perception of life from material to spiritual values. Even the conception of life after death and reincarnation brought about hope. An unending chain of construction and destruction, where "present", is only a phase in transition. These experiences made me realize that life is full of surprise and paradox. Everything that occurred in the past can happen again in another time, place, and form. Once past, events become unrealities, memories, or visions. Such endless fluctuation of experience between the oneself and others, of the immediate world and beyond, of good and bad, and then and now, are simply God revealing and concealing his game, his lila.
Traditional Hindu architecture, which expresses through movement - whether fast or slow with several pauses - is perceived not only as a part of this instant or eternity, but as an intimate experience. Architecturally, the broken wheel of time is expressed as a sequence of juxtaposed long and short corridors with a variety of pauses, scales, interspersed courtyards, and unexpected visual barriers, including changes in structural expression or in the quality of light.
Likewise, in traditional Indian architecture, each space can be perceived independently to complete a unique experience. One can be transformed through a proactive dialogue with space and time. One can cross a threshold into another space, another time, and another phase of psychological and spiritual experience. Walls, columns, surfaces, rhythms, light, etc., are instruments that activate these spaces. Such experiences can be had throughout India, in places both small and large, and in social religious, or royal complexes. In these complexes there exists a natural pattern, in which the normative activities connected to specific functions are transcended and surrounded by an immense number of peripheral links and areas with no apparent function. Even in the conventional temple complex, the zone of activity and the interaction with the participants in marginal. While the open, pillared subhamandap invites assembly, the enclosed, dark girbhagriha admits few, thus establishing an inner awareness of silence, void, and timelessness. However, when a devotee undertakes the ritualistic circumambulation on the plinth around the external face of the shrine of the hidden deity, his perception of time and space is transformed, even though the physical space remains the same.
When I visit the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, a vast complex built over seven centuries, the spatial experiences continually reveal the duality of life through simultaneous co-existence of the extremes, namely space organisation characterised by the informal as well as formal, structured with loose and finite with infinite. These spatial attributes are also intrinsic to traditional towns and villages of India. The builtforms and open spaces enrich both the private and public realms. Corridors of various scales are designed to instantly recall our ancient history through columns or walls elaborately decorated with stories and myths that immediately connect to other worlds with different times, even though the clock continues to tick normally.
The varied sizes, scales, and typologies of the open and semi-covered courtyards extend my vision t o the eternal passage of the sun or the moon, the changing patterns of the starlit sky, and the rhythms of the seasons. The saturated, diverse, and simultaneous experiences at the temple, as well as the deities in the niches of the walls surrounding the shrines, intercept my movement through the depiction of social context similar to those in towns. Nevertheless, these diverse experiences do not distract me from the goal instead, they simultaneously connect me to the main and multiple centres and peripheries in this complex. Strangely, this vast complex becomes condensed into one experience, its diversity appearing simultaneously both close and far. For example, watching a statue of a deity hidden in the corner of a dark room adjacent to the corridor, I constantly sense the presence of the main deity across a great distance and through the layers that surround it. A universal energy seems to be generated by the dynamic relationships among solids and voids, built and unbuilt.
Another significant and completely different architectural example is the observatory at Jaipur, known locally as jantar mantra, which implies magical contraptions. Here, the visitor enters into a totally different time frame. All of the architectural manifestations are sculptural interpretations of scientific instruments employed to measure cosmic time through the movements of the planets and stars. These devices represent a condensation of all celestial movements in a permanent stage set of precisely located and oriented architectural forms. These casual observer may experience the enigmatic quality of their geometry, but for the an enquiring mind the shadows, moving over time, somehow convey silent but certain connections with the sky, the cosmos, and the larger order of time.
Yet another example is the Islamic complex at Sarkhej, Ahmedabad, built around 1466. Here, a summer palace, a mosque, and several tombs are organized around a tank. It is the most frequented monument in the city. Some visit this complex simply to go to the mosque, some only to the tombs, while others sit under the pavilions in the arid climate. In the end, they all sit around the steps that enclose the vast water tank, performing the daily chores of washing clothes or bathing. Even though the complex has designated areas for the tomb, the mosque, and the pavilions, there are several unassigned, in-between spaces that have become unique allowing for spontaneous activities ever changing with seasons, festivities and intensity of visitors. Rather than physical architectural linkages, the visual, emotional, and psychological connections have become important and contribute to the popularity and compelling force of this complex.
The building have a strong relation to sun, the moon, and the water. The famous step wells that connect the changing levels of drinking water are our unique architectural monuments celebrating the presence of and access to water. Narrow, long, and often more than five floors deep, these underground wells are located mostly in hot, dry climates where the water level changes drastically during the monsoon and summer seasons. Going beyond mere functionality, the sequence and process of the task of fetching water is elaborately designed to exalt the ceremonial and sacred aspects of water. The introduction of several pauses and the provision of underground rooms for resting accommodate gatherings away from the hot sun. The passage of time is conveyed to the relaxing crowd through the daily movements of the sun and shadows, which filter through the lattice of beams and columns, as well as through the seasonally changing water level. In this ceremoniously designed, inclined, and horizontal space, planned and unplanned encounters with other community members encourage one to discuss - and absorb or efface - personal experiences of daily family life. In the shadows and the silhouettes against the sky, one discovers the story of a period full of myths and realities.
In the Indian subcontinent, towns and cities that grew over time narrate similar physical and metaphysical stories. For example, the juxtaposition of linear, meandering streets with multifaceted, irregular open spaces at Delhi, Ahmedabad, and other cities, or the high plinths of the houses with deep verandas at Benares, or the open-sky terraces and extra-large gargoyles in the desert of Jaisalmer, or the finely carved jharookhas at Jaipur, Rajasthan, simultaneously express the need of a very complex way of life and the aspirations of a particular people and place. Layers of forms, surfaces, and architectural styles vary in relation to climatic conditions, suggesting the continuity and prolongation of time. The architecture expresses a life style that has existed and will exist as long as the context does.
While recalling these experiences, one realizes how much one has drifted away from those so-called immeasurable activities and spaces that are essential to society's physical and social balance. It seems that we have to find ways to compel inhabitants to notice the changes in the seasons, the phases of the moon and their link to the rise and flow of tides, or the rising and setting of the sun in order to enable the inner self once again to perceive and unpredicted pauses which contain timeless energy.
Measuring the utility of buildings by months or years does not reveal the quality of one's experience of a building. It is really a disconnected and personal, time-bound experience. If the design has provided for a separation of time zones, a layering of external and internal worlds, or alternate modes of movement with elements to slow down, break-up, and change the course of the time and movement relationship, would that not provide choices and unexpected joys? Does the absence of a sustained order not lead to more memorable experiences? This is always true of great architecture. Sadly, it is not true of our present time. With the passage of time, new dimensions have entered our perceptions. Our measure of time is accelerating, and events are now coupled with rapid change and uncertainty. The relationship of man to built form has become transitory, and identity has become synonymous with quick, result oriented action. Symbols are now dependent upon a constantly changing and increasingly uncertain world view.
Against this myopic world view and the resulting well-structured, extremely regulated, mechanized architectural spaces, the only constant that can recover our sensibilities is the introduction of the pause, the "gap" or unexpected, ambiguous link. This gap, or "open-ended ambiguity," through its momentary sense of repose in time and re-orientation of space, help counteract stressful activity.
In architecture, this gap or pause is the unassigned loosely superimposed space, the corner or corridor or irregular courtyard accidentally discovered. In these spaces use is undefined and choice is unlimited. The spaces may not have tangible, measurable, or material value, but they have a permanent experiential and immeasurable value because they contain the possibility of spontaneity.
In the academic and cultural complexes and the townships that I have designed, I have included these currently ignored architectural elements, whose only functions are to break the circle of time, to allow opportunity to pause, meander, or just to go astray. Because time can stop. And when time is still, we can discover the joys of getting lost in space, in time, or in a place, effacing the traces of a linear, stressful life by registering the changing nuances of shadows and rhythms in space, the quality of light, colour, texture, or the sound of falling rain or the smell of flowers. This in turn connects us to our primordial, timeless self.
This is the challenge I have taken up in my projects. In our Aranya housing for the "have-nots" at Indore, a multidimensional use of time and resources was employed. To encourage unexpected but accepted participation, the form and pattern of flexible dwellings with growth potential, is integrated with the street patterns. Pauses in the form of open spaces are provided, allowing the residents to choose time, contact, or activity before reaching a destination. As a result, Aranya offers residents a choice to live at either the pace of a village or small town, or at that of a neighbourhood on the fringe of a metropolis.
Similar to Fatehpur Sikri near Agra or the Meenakshi Temple at madurai, unassigned open and semi-open architectural connections mark the passage of time at the Indian Institute of management in Bangalore. Over twenty years in the masking and with several directors modifying the academic program, an architecture of uncertainty helped to add new dimensions to the flexibility of the campus. The passage along the spine is modulated with changing light, spaces, and scales in the covered and semi-covered pergolas, which encourages the academicians to pause and reconsider the existing and new interactive modes of communication.
Sangath distils both the experiences of my ancestral home and those in Le Corbusier's architectural studio in Paris. Its form and plan raise haunting questions about form and formality and ambiguity. To reach the partially buried design studio, one has to pass through several meandering, open and enclosed passages that are intermingled with natural elements such as the sun, the moon, water, flora, and fauna. When passing from one point to another, one is compelled to recognize the connections between the manmade and the cosmic, and to acquire a glimpse of the enigmatic or the immeasurable, the essential parameter of creation.
Underground, dimly lit, and unfathomable space is what gufa (literally, "cave") means. Its fluid space, which has now become a natural girbhagriha, or "golden womb," is where one is able to discover previous births and reincarnations. Such unexpected experiences make one ask: Who am I? Where do I come from? What time is ti? How much and whose time do we have? Yet these questions become irrelevant as one delves deeper, as in a yogic trance. In the gufa, the past, present, and future are fused into a seamless continuum. There is no beginning and no end: in that space, time stands still.